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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Malcolm Smith Remembers Off-Road and Baja 1000

Malcolm Smith makes off-road mainstream business

Deep in Rattlesnake Canyon, beyond Big Bear Lake in California's San Gabriel mountain wilderness, Malcolm Smith was sifting through a patch of sand.

The future world enduro riding champion had ditched high school for the day and found himself stranded by a snapped transmission chain on his 500cc Matchless motorcycle. It was 1956, two years after the 15-year-old Smith had first ventured into the San Gabriels on a Lambretta 125 scooter. To make headway vs. the snow and mud, he'd used worn cleats tossed away by the high school football team. By the time he was stuck in Rattlesnake Canyon, persistence and resourcefulness were second nature. "It took me about an hour and a half in the sand to find the link to the chain that had broke," Smith told IBD. He fitted the piece back into the chain, then pounded it together with rocks. "Otherwise I think I would have been in that canyon a week before anyone came by."

Smith survived Rattlesnake Canyon and rode to the top of his sport. He dominated Europe's Six Day Trials races, considered the Olympics of off-road motorcycling, from 1966 to 1976. He won the grueling Baja 1,000-mile race three times on a motorcycle. He won it another three times in four-wheeled vehicles. Outside Europe, the sport of off-road enduro riding faced steep challenges. Top riders like Smith and predecessor Bud Akin were legends in the riding community. Europeans flocked to see the events. But the remote, one-way courses weren't spectator-friendly to Americans. That gave manufacturers little incentive to support even the top riders. "If you went back to the magazines in the era Malcolm rode, look at Cycle World, which has been one of the largest distribution magazines; the enduro riders just don't hit the radar," Mark Mederski, executive director of the American Motorcycle Association's Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum.

While top motocross and road racers received full factory backing, enduro riders like Akin and Smith relied on their entrepreneurial chops. Akin supported his riding career as a motorcycle dealer and part-time Hollywood stunt driver/rider.

Hollywood Comes Calling

Smith built a $20 million-a-year motorcycle dealership and a real estate management and development operation. A co-starring role with Steve McQueen in the 1971 motorcycling film "On Any Sunday" gave Smith instant name recognition across America. Smith was born in 1941 at Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. His father, a former gold miner, was 81 when Smith was born. The family moved to San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles, when Malcolm was 5. Smith took his first step in business when Rush "Pappy" Mott, a motorcycle dealer, got tired of seeing the kid root through the garbage and gave him a job. Mott was an old racer with a wooden leg earned during his racing career. He taught Smith the ins and outs of the business. Pappy Mott was among the first Honda dealerships in the country to import Honda's first Super Cub bikes in the late 1950s.

None of the mechanics at Mott's shop wanted to assemble the incoming bikes, which were shipped in pieces from Japan. Mott told the youngster he'd pay $5 for each assembled motorbike. When everyone had gone home, Smith would clear the dealership floor and lay out the parts for eight or 10 unassembled bikes. Working as a one-man production line, he could finish the job in a couple of hours. Smith would exaggerate and tell the service crew it took him eight or 10 hours. "I didn't want them to catch on that I was making more money than the head mechanic," he said.

The kid traded in his scooter on the 500cc Matchless when he was 15. He began racing a year later. Off-road races were common in Southern California, and Smith would ride the local circuits after school during the week to practice. He was out practicing one day when racers arrived. Smith quickly learned he was quicker than those in the group who were winning races. He signed up to compete. In his first race, Smith told himself to hold the throttle flat open for as much of the race as possible. He started deep in the pack and, as the group slowed to head into the first turn, the new kid crashed into the back of the pack. He ended up at the bottom of five other bikers. "All I remember is a chain going around right in front of my face," he said. He took a dozen tumbles during that race, but still took second place.

"I realized if I had eliminated all that time on the ground, I would have been in first place," he said. The next month the kid came back, eased off the throttle a bit and chalked up his first of many first-place finishes. Smith broke his leg during one of his first races after turning pro at 18. While recuperating, he enrolled in the aircraft mechanics program at San Bernardino Valley College. After graduating, he began managing the service operation for another local dealership, K&N Motorcycle, and Smith returned to racing. The off-road races offered only trophies, no prize money. So he filled the back of his van with parts before heading to a race. He opened up the night before an event and sold parts. After the race, he sold parts again.

European Success

About 1965, Swedish motorcycle manufacturer Husqvarna contacted the young mechanic and offered to sponsor him in the Six Day Trials (which changed its name to Six Day Enduro in 1980). He'd been hot to compete in the event, and a free ticket and a motorcycle to ride in Europe were big lures. "I was making $100 a week, so my chances of going to Europe were pretty slim," he said. In Sweden, Smith bounced over the moss and mud-covered boulders. He took a silver medal, but relearned the lesson from his first race: Smooth works better than fast. Easing up often wins the race. Smith returned the next year to take the gold medal, which he won seven more times through 1976.

In about 1970, filmmaker Bruce Brown and McQueen approached Smith about making "Any Given Sunday." Brown had made the popular surfing film "Endless Summer" several years earlier. The new film portrayed Smith as King of the Mexican 1,000 - the consummate rider, able to tackle any off-road challenge with a fun-loving attitude. The film earned an Oscar nomination, and Smith became a motorcycling icon in the U.S. He borrowed from his stepfather to buy the K&N dealership in 1972 and changed the name to Malcolm Smith Motorsports a year later. The family-run business has grown into a 65,000-square-foot operation, with 93 employees pulling in about $20 million in sales each year. At 66, Smith still heads up off- and on-road riding excursions and says he still looks at the challenges of business and racing competition in much the same way.

Baja Racing News.com